His roster remains one of the youngest in the league, and he is about to lead a team through a truncated season for the second time in his NBA career, but Washington Wizards Coach Flip Saunders is entering his third season with the franchise with more stability and continuity than ever before.
Saunders is not trying to teach a new system to a group of obstinate veterans, as he did in his first year. He’s not trying to lead the first year of rebuilding effort around John Wall, while also placating the former face of the franchise, Gilbert Arenas, as he did in his second year.
The Wizards are ensured of bringing back seven of their eight core players, plus adding three rookies. And they are working diligently to retain last year’s leading scorer, restricted free agent Nick Young. So, with more familiarity and the experience of guiding a team into the postseason during a lockout-shortened season, Saunders doesn’t want to lean on the excuses of youth and rebuilding efforts.
“I want to compete for the playoffs,” Saunders said during a news conference at Verizon Center on Friday, exactly a week before NBA teams are expected to open training camps.
The Wizards went 23-59 last season and finished last in the Southeast Division for the third year in a row. But Saunders said the Wizards are closer to turning the corner, with the continued progress of Wall, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee and the return of a healthy Rashard Lewis. He expects the team to fare better in close games after gaining some much-needed experience.
“When you look at where we were at, you might say that’s not” realistic, Saunders said of reaching for the playoffs. “But if you look at it, and you really break it down to what you have to do and where we have opportunities to have improvement, cutting down on turnovers and some of those things, those are things I think that are very attainable.”
Saunders has dealt with unusual circumstances during his time in Washington, but in 1998-99 he overcame a lockout-delayed start to the regular season to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves into the postseason — despite a midseason swap of Stephon Marbury for Terrell Brandon.
“It’s not quite 82 but its definitely better than 60 or 50, that’s for sure. When you have 66, I think you do have a truer measurement,” Saunders said. “There’s going to be times with the shortened season when you’re going to have to utilize the ability to recuperate quickly, which is good for younger, athletic teams, but in close games, veteran teams tend to win close games. It makes for an interesting season.”
Saunders is unable to communicate with his players but he has kept tabs on them through what he has read and seen on the Internet. He was impressed with what he saw from Wall, Blatche and even Kevin Seraphin, who helped the French national team finish second in the European Olympic qualifying tournament and is currently playing in Spain with Caja Laboral until the lockout officially ends.
Wall, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, displayed more explosiveness and an improved jumper from his rookie season. “His first year was a great learning experience. He had a great year and I think he’s going to build upon that,” Saunders said. “His success is judged not by his personal success, but by the success of our team. That’s the thing we stressed to him at the end of the year. I think he stressed that a lot to himself as far as working on the things that he could to make the other guys better.”
Blatche was recovering from a broken right foot most of last season, and he will enter camp with soreness in his right shoulder, but Saunders believes the Wizards need their longest-tenured player on the court, healthy, to be competitive.
“A lot of people have been very critical of Andray at times, but if you look at him playing in games, we had our best winning percentage when he played,” Saunders said. “He might not at times have done what you guys wanted him to do or other people, but he was doing things that helped us win as a team.”
Saunders called on Blatche to take on more responsibility as a leader but he also challenged McGee and Young — if he is re-signed — to be more mature on and off the court.
He said McGee needed to be “more a player of substance than of highlights” and the 7-foot center would wind up sitting on the bench if he continued to dribble the ball the length of the court “because I’ve watched that on film and that’s not good.”
Young averaged a team-best 17.4 points last season, but Saunders said that if he returns, he would like to see the fifth-year veteran make more plays for other people and continue to get better on defense. He then mentioned the YouTube clip, later featured on “Good Morning America,” of McGee and Young attempting to eat cinnamon. “The cinnamon, that thing doesn’t cut it,” Saunders said. “They’re not young players anymore. You’re judged by not what you do as an individual, but what we do as a team.”
Saunders is eager to get back to work and get back to winning. He had never experienced consecutive losing seasons before arriving in Washington and his winning percentage with the Wizards (.298; 49-115) is considerably worse than it was when he was hired (.612; 840-533).
“Every year is a challenge. Has it been different teams? Yeah, we’ve probably had five different teams going into the third year when you look at the roster changing and the trades that were made,” Saunders said. “What I feel very good about is, I feel good about where we’re at. We’ve made changes that put this team in a situation that at some point’s going to be able to go and try to win a championship.
“I’ve always challenged myself, and always prided myself, on the fact of being a team that can become very disciplined and a team that becomes an execution team,” Saunders said. “So your teams that have the ability to win big are the teams that are athletic but have the ability to play that type of style. That’s going to be the challenge as far as moving forward.”